Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction

Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction


Reviewed by: Robert Munro

For fans of Harry Dean Stanton, surely one of American cinema’s most consistently engaging performers, there is much to love in the attempts of this documentary to find out what makes him tick. Ultimately, however, that remains beyond reach - not only for the viewer but, you get the impression, for Harry as well.

Anyone who has come across Harry Dean Stanton in interviews before may already be aware of his laconic fatalism and the distance he keeps between his work and himself. However, his attempts to do so in this documentary in the sparsity of his answers - he has a tendency to just shrug off everything and say “It is what it is. Everything just is.” - end up revealing a little more than perhaps he would like.

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Much of the film is taken up with Harry’s real passion for music, with a particular fondness for folksy blues. Harry sings to camera numbers like Fred Neil’s Everybody’s Talkin’ - made famous in Midnight Cowboy - and Blue Eyes Cryin’ In The Rain. The vulnerability that Harry brings to his acting is there too in his singing - that sadness of the eyes, the quiet warbling in his voice reveals more about Harry than his answering of questions ever could.

Along with footage of some of Harry’s greatest performances - Paris, Texas, Repo Man, Alien, Cool Hand Luke - the filmmakers have David Lynch pop round for a cup of coffee (“Great flavour”) and an impressive assortment of talking heads also give their impressions of the man. Wim Wenders, director of Paris, Texas, perhaps provides the most engaging insights into working with HDS.

He discusses his lack of confidence in, finally, being a leading man. Particularly in a role which requires him to be mute for much of it. He argues that Harry uses mistakes and lessons from his own life - which Wim believes may have particularly resembled Travis' in Paris, Texas - to drive his acting, and subsequently the vulnerability he shows when acting perhaps results in Harry being a man of few words, preferring to insulate himself from his painful past when not on screen.

It’s something that David Lynch touches on too, the fine line HDS treads between a natural innocence and a painful hurt that makes him such a captivating screen presence. Lynch also provides a terrific insight into the nature of acting and directing, when he discusses Harry’s genius “in-between the lines”. Lynch says many actors aren’t really listening to the other characters, merely waiting for their own lines - yet Harry is always in the moment, always reacting to the scene and the actors in it.

The nature of Harry Dean Stanton means that no documentary is ever going to get underneath his skin, yet director Sophie Huber does manage to crack his defensive wall on occasion. At one point she has Harry opening up to a lost love - stolen away from him (by his account anyway) by Tom Cruise - and just then we see the mask slip and the hurt underneath tumble out.

He remains an enigma, and as captivating as ever, but most importantly, the film does demand a revisit to the back-catalogue of Harry Dean Stanton, and for that we must be grateful.

Reviewed on: 01 Jul 2013
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A portrait of the actor, with singing.

Director: Sophie Huber

Starring: Harry Dean Stanton, David Lynch, Sam Shepard, Wim Wenders, Deborah Harry, Kris Kristofferson

Year: 2012

Runtime: 77 minutes

Country: Switzerland


EIFF 2013
Karlovy 2013

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